Flu shot debate may cross into freedom of choice
There are increasing predictions that this winter could be a bad flu season.
The number of flu cases is higher than normal across the nation, including here in Arizona, for this early in the traditional flu season, and federal health officials say the infection rate has not yet reached its peak. It is believed it could be the worst in nearly a decade.
Fortunately, an effective flu vaccine is still readily available. Each year, it is a gamble how effective the vaccination will be since it is based on an educated guess as to which of the various strains of flu will be most prevalent. Health officials say this year's version got it right.
Of course, its effectiveness depends on how many people actually get vaccinated. Like any disease, limiting the infection rate and spread depends on a widespread barrier of people who have been immunized.
Unfortunately, many choose not to do so, especially those who are younger. The most vulnerable are children, the elderly and those with particular chronic health conditions — and doctors generally urge them to take advantage of flu vaccinations.
No flu vaccine is perfect. Some will still come down with the flu even if they are immunized — the flu is a complex disease. Some use this as a reason not to get vaccinated, but doctors point out that even if you did get the flu, it will likely be milder if you have had a flu shot.
One issue that has emerged in recent years is whether employers — especially health care providers — can require their workers to be vaccinated against the flu.
It is controversial since it crosses the line of freedom of choice, especially about one's own health care.
One might think that health care workers, who are most likely to be exposed to the flu, would automatically choose to be vaccinated. But the reality is many do not, and for the same reasons other people cite for declining.
Still, there does seem to be a special justification in this case for the requirement. Health care workers are not only more likely to be exposed themselves but also more likely to expose others since they come in contact with so many patients.
And even more troubling is that these patients could be particularly vulnerable to serious complications from flu, which can be deadly for those who have compromised immunity systems or chronic diseases.
For that reason, this may be a case where freedom has to be limited because of the potential harm to others.
It will likely eventually be decided in the courts, as is often the case with employment disputes.